Tiger! Tiger! Burning Bright

Anger fuels the city, the smouldering coals of Blake’s satanic mills are alive and well. Since the attempted carbomb attack on the Tiger Tiger nightclub on Haymarket, I’ve had Blake’s quatrain drumming in my head,

Tyger! Tyger! burning bright,
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

Though this coincidence with Blake may have been lost on the bombers, it was not lost on me. Some days, London is full of fearful symmetries and awful dichotomies. Yesterday was such a day.

Two blanched-blonde chavs in pink track suits sit behind me on the bus. Their OG mannerisms borrowed from MTV, they listen to tinny hip hop mp3s on their mobiles and call me ginjah (or ginger) pointing to my red dreads with disgust. (It wasn’t until I moved here that I realized many Brits find red hair and freckles ugly and are unashamedly vocal about it– no doubt this is some leftover anti-Irish sentiment. For my American friends who don’t know what I’m talking about, see Catherine Tate’s hilariously illustrative “Ginger Oppression” skit.) The girls hissed at me as I left the bus, white girl respect your race. How is it they don’t realize their entire pose is a borrowed perversion of African American performative resistance?

Alighting in Picadilly, I find vandals got to Madame Pompadour— a dripping pink grimace sprayed over her.

Camilla and Kate convince me to go with them to check out the Damien Hirst show at the White Cube. Outside, people queue in the rain to see the skull, and across the street the gift shop sells tee shirts and posters sprinkled with (ethically sourced?) fairy dust. The guards wear what look like band tee shirts: a screen printed diamond with “hirst” in gothic letters across it. They don’t stop a child climbing on the bisected shark, and I like to think this is not out of laziness but instead knowing that this is ultimately what the thing was for– a morbid, toothy jungle gym. After all, isn’t Hirst the boy who pulled the wings off butterflies and showed you his dissections in the school yard? Now he’s just grown up and has a load of cash.

Walking between the shark sections did make me shudder with a zero at the bone feeling, and the black sheep impeccably stilled in its case terrified me, but all this emotional impact was lessened by the exceedingly bad paintings hung about the place: paint-by-numbers photorealism of his wife’s cesarean, and the garish pathology panels– hair and razor blades affixed to ink jet washes in inchoate art school fashion.

In one alcove a woman stands before the butterfly paintings— wings from tropical butterflies plastered to canvas. She wonders aloud, “where does he get them from?” Isn’t it obvious the whole show is snickering in the face of lifestyle politics and ethical sources— (White Cube’s press releases be damned)? In the other room, the climbing boy stands in front of the black sheep and asks, “Mummy, does he kill the animals himself?” And the mother, so confident in “culturing” her child by letting him climb on the vitrines, is stumped. After a pause she replies, “They are dead, darling.” In other words, don’t worry how they got that way.

When the stars threw down their spears,
And watered heaven with their tears,
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb, make thee?

Later we went to see a screening of Sadie Bennings brilliant German Song and I got homesick. At least in America one is allowed a fertile innocence. But in London, that seems impossible. It was Gay Pride in Soho yesterday, and even with a bomb scare and torrential rain, people came out in carnival beads and metallic latex to drink in the streets with a joyless determination. Blitz spirit, innit? The special bomb units ran through the crowd, and one bumped into me, turned and apologized before running on. I thought– this would never happen in America– a massive street party right after a bomb scare? A policeman under duress saying sorry? For a moment, I was happy to be in such a proud, wildly civil place. I had no idea of the flaming SUV crashed in the airport in Glasgow.

What the hammer? What the chain?
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? What dread grasp
Dare its deadly terrors clasp?

A Plague of Jolly Rogers

Damien Hirst and “For the Love of God”

Or, What Damien Hirst’s £50 million skull means to me.

I must confess to never really being compelled by Hirst’s morbid insincerity. When I first saw his suspended calf and sheep, “Away from the Flock” and “Child Divided” in Art Forum in the early 90s, I was repulsed. At the time, I was involved in animal rights quite seriously, but also there was something about his glib approach to suffering that put me off. Now that I live in England, I understand them in a new way, as a comment on an English pastoralism that’s now clouded with the nightmare of foot-and-mouth and mad cow disease. Both catastrophes saw the countryside marked with massive burial pits for livestock.

Of course, if one thinks hard enough about something, one can find meaning. This doesn’t make the something art. While I’m usually up for the carnavalesque sensibility conceptual art often offers, I definitely won’t be queuing for tickets to see For the Love of God.

And who’s skull is it anyway? Some poor 18th century sod whose remains ended up in a London taxidermy shop. Apparently Hirst funded the making of the skull himself, which cost over 26 million to make– assuring the public that the diamonds are “conflict free.” In the most facile sense, the skull is a comment on the “you can’t take it with you” cliche. Ultimately, we’re all meat to Hirst, but a few of us have deep pockets, and this is his universe. When I see pictures of him, I just think “slick, cruel dork.” It makes sense that at this time in history someone so culturally impotent would be rich and famous. I’m sure some people think he’s laughing all the way to the morgue, but the only thing I resent is that his deteriorating body of work will continue to be foisted on us, and eventually it will be his own deteriorated body which will become spectacle. Mark my words– there are probably some obscene conditions in his will: his head in a vitrine, set upon by maggots and flies. Instead of A Thousand Years it could be called Fifteen Minutes.

Perhaps in For the Love of God, Hirst finally admits he’s not only mortal, he’s an art-history faddist stumbling after the zeitgeist. I ask you, how many skulls have you seen this week– on cereal boxes and kid’s sneakers, in the windows of H&M and New Look, on movie posters and chapstick and candy? You can’t walk a foot down the high street without being confronted by a skull on something, usually pink and intended for consumption by a 13 year old girl. Pirates are everywhere, and perhaps it’s fitting that Hirst would choose the most played of images to break the bank. He is a pirate, after all.

He’s not the first to decorate a skull– skull oracles, Aztec skull mosaics– Hirst has acknowledged their influence on the current work. But there is also Hirst’s contemporary, Steven Gregory, to consider. Gregory has been creating bejeweled skulls for some time now. Hirst actually wrote an essay for Gregory’s Skullduggery show catalog, and owns many of Gregory’s skulls.

And this is not the first time Hirst has merely taken someone else’s genuine product and turned it into a high-priced stunt. Stuckism, an anti-conceptual art movement, has argued that Hirst stole the idea for his shark vitrine from Eddie Saunders, “fish artist” and electrician who displayed a very similar shark in his Shoreditch shop window years before Hirst paid someone to catch a shark for him. Unlike Hirst, Saunders caught the fish himself. Stuckism’s photos of both works side by side make quite a convincing argument.

The Guardian quotes Hirst as being satisfied with the final object: “To me it seems gentle, quite soft,” he said of the skull. “I would hope that anybody looking at it would get a bit of hope, and be uplifted. We need to line the world with beautiful things that give you hope.”– proof of either his profound disingenuousness or his own numbskulled delusion.